The truly great boxers are possessed of a very specific set of skills. Marvin Hagler, Ray Leonard, Ezzard Charles, all of these men were blessed with a remarkable combination of speed and power as well as a dancer's elegance. So it was something of a surprise to see Jake Gyllenhaal exhibit that same kind of rare physicality in Southpaw. His performance, both in the ring and out, was mostly remarkable.
You also had all of those technical skills, Roy. The power, the quickness, the casually luminous athleticism that all exceptional athletes possess. But in the same way this film was potentially brilliant—it had a solid cast, beautiful cinematography, and a director who had previously produced superior work—your career and Southpaw share a sad confluence. In both cases all those ingredients never added up to more than the sum of their parts.
The script dutifully checks the appropriate boxes—riches to rags to redemption. Everyone from the deeply flawed trainer to the avaricious promoter had their requisite moment. Characters were definitely at the disposal of the plot, a circumstance that inevitably leads to a lack of emotional engagement with the audience. Rachel MacAdams was underutilized and she disappeared from the film far too quickly. There were any number of characters that simply show up as required. Disillusioned daughter—check. Kid from the wrong side of the tracks that echoes the protagonist as a troubled youth—check. At least the daughter doesn’t get eradicated, offstage, and then dismissed with a single sentence when her purpose has been served. These characters/plot devices appear and then, when convenient, do a quick fade. As a result of this kind of utilitarian construction, nothing about the script felt organic or even mildly surprising.
Gyllenhaal carried every moment he was on screen, which thankfully was most of the film. His portrayal of Billy ‘The Great White’ Hope was nuanced and, when the script allowed, riveting. Not only did he nail the physical aspects of the character but he painted a convincing portrait of how elite athletes are often congenitally ill equipped to deal with the mundane realities of daily life—that if they are stripped of their support structures they are often revealed for the literal babes in the woods that they are. It is Billy’s journey from child to something akin to a responsible adult that is the backbone of this movie, and that journey had moments of real pathos.
The boxing scenes were competently filmed and lucid in their construction. The climactic fight, particularly, was elegantly crafted, but somehow empty of any real emotion. And that is perhaps the problem with the film. Antoine Fuqua is a remarkably adept technical director. His films look beautiful, they generally move at a good clip and there is very little that could be labeled as extraneous. But it seems to be the case that the early promise of a film like Training Day owed as much to a great script by David Ayers and a brilliant performance from Denzel Washington as anything else. Nothing Fuqua has done since has come close to the spiky greatness of that superb film.
Southpaw is a film that contained all the moving parts for something special but the conventional nature of the script and a seeming reluctance to step outside of any of the usual tropes hamstrung the whole enterprise. I’m not sure if that is the result of caution on Fuqua’s part or simply the weakness of the material but the film never managed to create the heightened emotional beats that similar films, like Warrior or The Fighter, evoked.
As with the difference between a great fighter and merely a good one, a great film is possessed of an ineffable quality that a good film simply lacks. This quality is beyond technical prowess or even the talents of everyone involved. You know this better than most, Roy, partially because it was something that occasionally eluded you in your career. Your talent was superlative but you sometimes failed to rise to the moment—you seemed to lack the capacity to transcend your admittedly infrequent limitations. Southpaw also never quite manages that transcendent quality either; and as a result is, in its best moments, just a good film.
But not a great one.